Microsoft Lumia 950XL Review: The best option for the worst selection

20151228_164151For the most part, Microsoft fans (or Windows Phone fans, rather) have been waiting for more than two years for a proper replacement to the last Lumia flagship (Lumia 1020, 930, 1520). Well, two years later, Microsoft announced the Lumia 950 and the Lumia 950XL. Does the phone justify the two-year waiting period and the hefty price tag of $650? Let’s take a look.

Hardware and Specification

Design

20151228_162727For the most part, the design of the Lumia 950XL is quite plain. While it is the familiar polycarbonate back that has become a signature of the Lumia line, that is just not enough. The phone bear the resemblance to its most recent predecessors. But it lacks the significant of the Lumia 1020, and the metallic of the newer 930.

However, with that being said, the feel-in-hand is not so bad. While the design will, at best, makes people ask you if it is “the phone with the 41 megapixels camera” (which it’s not), holding the device gives a familiar feel. Maybe it is the polycarbonate back, or something else, but for the time I have used the phone so far, I can’t help but keep holding the phone in my hand, despite the lost weight or the metallic trim.

Specification

While some might suspect the device is left-over from the Nokia acquisition, the specification is clearly not. Under the 5.7-inch QHD AMOLED display is the Snapdragon 810, 3GB of memory and 32GB of internal storage (expandable via Micro SD cards).

20151228_165424How do they perform? Let’s start with the display. It will not be an overstatement to say that AMOLED screen was made for Windows 10. Live Tiles look incredible on the QHD display. And a minor detail like the navigation bar being so awesome despite my reservation about it at first. The high resolution combines with the real blackness that an AMOLED display provides, you will think that it is capacitive buttons instead of on-screen buttons. Furthermore, videos playback is wonderful and on par with most of its Android and iOS counterparts.

The phone operates well on the Snapdragon 810. Thanks to the so-called “liquid cooling technology,” the device stay relatively warm at its worst during most heavy duty activities. There are a few delays and stuttering, but from my understanding, it is the software problems (which we’ll get to later).

Camera

20151228_162746The optics department is a mixed bag of good and bad. The viewfinder, while intuitive, is filled with bugs. It takes forever to process a picture and up until recently, filming in 4K is almost a no-go. Although it is fixed in my device, a lot of reviewer out there still report having the same condition after the firmware update.

But after you get past all the bugs, the camera is… Underwhelming at best. Now, don’t get me wrong, in the right lighting, the pictures are phenomenal. The color is crisp and vibrant; the details are sharp, and twenty megapixels means you can get a lot of information out of one zoom pinch. Pictures with flash can still be adjusted after the fact, and overall, it is an impressive camera phone to have if you even remotely interest in picture-taking. However, it has not improved from the last Lumia flagship. Even with the additional three-LED flash, if you have ever used the Lumia 930 or 1520, you won’t see any improvement.

So why it is underwhelming? For many reasons, one of which is that the Lumia line is popular in part because of its camera. While it has not fallen behind its competition, it’s no longer the leaders in the mobile optic race. At the time when Samsung and LG make camera their priorities, PureView is slowing down.

wp_ss_20151228_0012Furthermore, Pureview camera is no longer the king of in-the-dark pictures. In many situations, the camera has a hard time focus in dark situation, despite being supported by a table. With flash on, however, the camera takes a much better picture. While having flash is not an ideal option, the fact that you can tune the brightness afterward makes it easier to bear.

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Speaker and Microphone

20151228_162808On the audio side, the speaker’s position is questionable at best and just wrong at worst. However, the sound comes out is plenty clear and loud. The base is on the light side, but for most music consumers, it will serve them just fine. The microphone works well, with the receivers say I sound clear and loud, even at public places. The in-ear sound piece also provides clear and crisp sound.

Software: Half a window

20151228_162839Okay, there is no way to put this nicely, so I’m going to be blunt: Windows 10 Mobile is horrible!

I know the excuses of “oh, it is early” or “Windows 10 is still in BETA.” There are good reasons for the excuses. After all, Windows 10 is still in its infancy. Moreover, besides the x50 phones that were announced back in April, no other phones have been updated to Windows 10, so in some case, even the mention of this software being in BETA is somewhat reasonable.

My problem here is that Microsoft is selling the phone as a completed device. And for what the software can do, it does not warrant the $650 price tag on its back.

Now, I do not know, nor do I care, how does Windows 10 software works internally. However, I do care how it performs, and it is a travesty.

App StoreStarting with the App Store, the cornerstones of any mobile smartphones, is a real piece of incomplete work. Apps won’t update or stop mid-stream is more than common; the store crashes at first launch, every time. (*Firmware update 01078.00027.15506.020xx fixes some of the problems.)

For the apps that are on the phones, they are inconsistent at best. Task switching is a terrible experience, as the app reload every time I switch to another app. You think RAM management on Android Lollipop is bad? It seems like Windows 10 has no RAM management whatsoever.

ins-twi-vineFinally, the app gap. Even know the Universal Windows Apps project is less than a year old, the whole situation is worse than W8.1. Many apps banking apps disappear (Chase, Well Fargo, etc…) with the exception of Bank of America as the company is building a universal app for Windows. Snapchat is still nowhere to be found. Also, notable titles in the store like Twitter, Vine, and Instagram are at least four versions behind its Android and iOS counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are still a lot of things to like about Windows 10 Mobile. While Microsoft has streamlined the Windows platform, loose its character and standard from Windows Phone 8 and 7, it is also much more similar to Android and iOS. Right or wrong is depend on the users’ interpretation. Let’s just say that if you are making a move from other platforms, this will feel more or less, the same.

native-apps.pngAdditional software touch like the gadget hub is incredibly helpful if you juggle between many Bluetooth speakers, headphones, and smartwatches. Storage helps organize files and documents’ destination with ease, and File Explorer lets you browse all of your documents. Lastly, Cortana works like a charm. Since the first time she was introduced in Windows Phone 8.1, Cortana wears the personality of Siri and the intelligence of Google Now, and that still hold true today. The combination is perfect for a virtual assistant, and that is why I still prefer her more than any others.

uiFurthermore, there is just a classy feeling when you use a Windows Phone. It’s UI and futuristic design easily outclass its competitor. Side-by-side, Windows makes Android and iOS seem immature, if not flat out, toy-like.

20151228_163122Lastly, Windows 10 Mobile’s new features all work as expected. From Continuum to Windows Hello Beta (WH). Before I go any further, let’s me just say right now that WH is not as fast as the biometric fingerprint scanner on iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy S6. However, it recognizes me quick enough and often enough that I don’t need to keep moving my phone forward and backward every time I want to unlock it.

Conclusion

20151228_163148The bottom line question is: “Is the Lumia 950 XL worth changing platform for?” As of right now, the answer is No.

To reiterate my points throughout the review, Windows 10 Mobile is a garbled mess. Don’t get me wrong, I want to like the phone, but despite all of my excuses, Microsoft has some serious problems on its hand. The design is old and uninspired (if not flat out lazy); the software is unfinished and filled with bugs, and the app gap does not seem to shrink any time soon . Unless you are a hardcore Microsoft fan, there is no reason for you to get the Lumia 950 or the 950XL.

Nonetheless, if you do get the device, you will enjoy the elegant UI, the futuristic technology, and top of the line camera. Microsoft states that the company builds this phone for the fans, and for as little as it is, Microsoft still delivered it (barely). Again, if you are a Windows Phone fan, chances are, you will get the phone no matter what. The saddest part, however, is that even the most enthusiastic fan of Microsoft won’t be able to recommend it to anyone else.

On the bright side, the fan is buying, and the phone is selling like hot cake. The phone itself shows the potential of the Windows 10 Mobile platform, and the commitment Panos Panay and Microsoft have for its mobile OS. While this is Microsoft’s less-than-desired flagship, things can only go up from here, and I expect the sequel to be better, as the company has got some skin in the game.

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